I want to start this off with a caveat here: I love Stephen King. It is probably one of my favorite books of all time, I wholeheartedly believe that even Bram Stoker doesn’t have shit on Salem’s Lot, and perhaps most tellingly, I thought The Tommyknockers was somewhat readable. It’s a genuine shame to me that almost nothing that people have attempted to adapt to a visual medium has really worked. Except for that one time that Stanley Kubrick actually managed to one-up the guy who created the damn story in the first place.
We’re gonna start broad, and hone in here: Why do I like Kubrick’s Shining more than King’s? In a word, subtlety. King was still drinking like a fish and doing copious amounts of coke and xanax when he was writing The Shining, and the writing has a disorganized and over-verbose quality that gives the reader almost too much information. Kubrick presents Jack’s break with reality as an intensely slow burn that is downright cringe-worthy to watch. King’s Torrance, on the other hand, soliloquizes ad-fucking-nauseam how regretful he is for hurting Danny, how hard it is being a recovering alcoholic, and when he finally snaps, it feels so abrupt that I almost viewed crazy Jack as a separate character from caretaker Jack. The stark schism actively removed a sense of peril. Not hearing his internal monologue in Kubrick’s shining is immensely effective, as the audience is left to deduce the extent of Jack’s damage based on his demeanor and mannerisms alone.
Anyone who has ever committed words to a page is familiar with the (oft incredibly trite) adage, “show, don’t tell.” And in a written story about a man’s breaks with reality and internal struggles, that becomes incredibly difficult advice to follow. We learn too much about Jack Torrance from getting to crawl inside his head. Ty argues that movie Jack is not sympathetic, and I totally agree, but the key difference is that I don’t see this as a weakness. Movie Jack is already rough around the edges, and what little we learn of his time before The Overlook, he seems like he might just be kind of an asshole. As time moves on and Jack goes crazier and crazier, his break with reality seems like something he might actually be capable of, putting less emphasis on ghosts and more on the evil that men do, in a sense.
That brings me to another element I find preferable: I know that Kubrick has already shot this theory down, but I choose to ignore him because fuck you, you can’t take that away from me. I don’t think the ghosts are real. I don’t think The Overlook is haunted, I think Jack was already kind of a piece of shit, and the isolation combined with the stress of being on the wagon makes him snap, because to me that is a way more terrifying story. The encounter in room 237 is Jack’s libido taking control, as he mentally distances himself from romantic or sexual thoughts of his Wife. It’s then just a hop, skip, and an axe from the fuck instinct to the kill instinct, according to Freudian psychology. He loses his connection to his wife and his family, and left to his own devices, crafts the perfect mental scenario to go insane. And yes, Ty points out that Wendy does see the weird furry-felatio scene, but she is also gripped with a panicked hysteria as she flees her murderous husband. And who among us hasn’t vividly hallucinated a dog costume oral sex scenario in a moment of panic, am I right?
This is also why I could not give less of a shit about (and even applaud) the lack of animate topiaries and fire hoses. The fact that nothing supernatural happens to anyone else in the family is what makes this movie so damned effective. We try to reason away Jack acting like a lunatic as the doings of ghosts, but there is cognitive dissonance, either conscious or subconscious, that tells you that you can’t necessarily believe what Jack is seeing, and it allows you to share in Wendy’s terror as you try to reconcile the “ghosts” tormenting Jack with his sudden blood lust.
At the end of the day, what sells the movie is the fact that it is such a tightly knit and personal story. King feels the need to have Hallorann show up and actively help save the day, and have a boiler with a ticking clock (that is foreshadowed about 300 pages too early), and a constant fucking internal feed to Jack’s inner torment feels so incredibly trite when compared to Kubrick, who knew that all you needed was a two person chase, a claustrophobic and unintuitive environment, and ineffable forces at play to make for a climax that is more bone chilling and blood pumping than literally an entire building blowing up. King told a decent ghost story, but Kubrick told a masterful horror story.